Dialogues with the Diasporas: Setting an Agenda for Development

It is now accepted that migration and development issues call upon at least two types of capital: financial capital, mainly in the form of remittances and direct investments, which remain key to promoting development strategies; and a human, social and cultural capital, which until now has been overlooked by many policy makers.

Both are now increasingly perceived as being as important as, if not more than, natural non-renewable capitals such as oil and minerals, when is comes to successful development.

Without the catalyst of human and social capital, there can be no comprehensive development strategy. And in today’s increasingly mobile world, this essential capital has a name: the diaspora.

The word “diaspora” refers to any people or ethnic population forced or induced to leave their traditional and ethnic homelands and the ensuing developments in their dispersal and culture. The word originally referred in the ancient Greek world to a scattering or sowing of seeds.

This definition is particularly pertinent in the context of the brain-drain, which continues to deprive the developing world and Africa in particular, of its most precious qualified human resources with a disastrous impact on development efforts.

With some 70 million migrants and their families working both inside and outside of the continent, the development potential of the African diaspora is considerable, providing its scattered seeds can grow in the right policy and programmatic environment.

In the broader context of its Migration and Development in Africa (MIDA) programme, IOM has for the past year and a half brought together via videoconference Africa’s many multi-faceted professional expatriate communities to engage in a positive and constructive dialogue with home and host governments to sponsor partnerships at a grass root level, sector by sector.

IOM’s on-going dialogues between African diasporas, governments and development partners in home and host countries is based on the conviction that the pool of knowledge, skill and expertise that thrives in expatriate communities worldwide can usefully contribute to the development of their country of origin.

The dialogues have so far covered a variety of topics, including health, agriculture and private sector investment in Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Tanzania as well as education in Sub Saharan Africa.

Each dialogue has gathered representatives from diaspora associations, governmental partners and their counterparts from international organizations in home and host countries to better define the demand side for skills in the country of origin, outline the existing pool of expertise abroad and identify some of the obstacles that prevent diasporas from investing at home.

One of the most common obstacles identified in all dialogues is the scarcity of professional opportunities for African graduates, including PhD students and health workers as well as the lack of adequate Research and Development opportunities at home. This partly explains why so many African professionals continue to emigrate in search of new professional challenges abroad.

A strategy to mitigate the impact of this loss of skills was clearly outlined throughout the dialogues: it implies finding ways to facilitate the mobility of professional expatriates who all recognised the importance and value of various types of circular migration.

Participants also agreed that this could successfully be achieved through a transfer of skills to bolster capacities at home, either through temporary physical returns or by bridging the digital divide so as to promote e-learning.

The dialogues revealed that these approaches had already been adopted in an ad-hoc fashion by some individuals and migrants’ associations. The main challenge remains to unite all those informal initiatives into a comprehensive migration and development policy framework in home and host countries.

Information exchanged during the dialogues also outlined further steps that need to be taken to sustain diaspora involvement in development programmes and policies.

An important step to turn the brain-drain into a brain-gain would be for governments and concerned institutions to know who migrates, where and for which reasons.

For this reason, diaspora associations in partnership with governmental stakeholders agreed on the need to establish databases listing the qualified human resources and skills available among expatriate communities throughout Europe and elsewhere.

These databases currently being developed with the assistance of IOM will be used to successfully match specific needs outlined by ministries in home countries with skills, knowledge and expertise available in the diaspora.

Another tangible result of the dialogues has been the direct involvement of members of the Congolese and Sudanese diaspora who have already travelled to their respective capitals to meet with ministers to discuss common strategies aimed at rebuilding shattered health systems not just in the capitals but also in rural areas, where needs are often most acute.

On one occasion, the Tanzanian Minister of Planning, Economy and Empowerment, Dr. Juma Alifa Ngasongwa, met the country’s diaspora in Washington, DC. All participants agreed that the diaspora would provide the Ministry with a database of Tanzanians residing in the United States in return for the Minister pushing the diaspora’s agenda forward in terms of land ownership for citizens abroad and dual citizenship.

Similar follow-up meetings are also planned between the Senegalese diaspora involved in education and agriculture later this summer.

But perhaps more importantly, the dialogues bridged crucial communication gaps between diaspora associations, home and host governments and a variety of development stakeholders.

By nurturing such dialogues, IOM has crucially opened communication channels that allow for dynamic interaction and collaboration in the field of migration and development.